Harcourt shines on third album

by Caroline McKenzie | 2/1/05 6:00am

Explaining Ed Harcourt to the uninitiated is somewhat difficult. He isn't like any of the young male singer-songwriters familiar to the radio-listening American public, mainly because he doesn't turn out "pret-a-ecouter" tunes that will placate your grandmother.

Instead he's closer to the sweetness of a good Richard Hawley track, with the playful exuberance of Jesse Malin's "Almost Grown." Or maybe more aptly, he has the under-the-radar indie rock brilliance of early Badly Drawn Boy recordings, but with production and instrumentation slightly more reminiscent of Coldplay. He's got the songwriting ability of Ryan Adams (although nobody is quite as prolific as Ryan), but with none of the alt-country influence.

In short, it's hard to make a succinct comparison when it comes to Harcourt. But his style is easy to describe and even easier to love. His signature song is a brilliant pop ballad that creeps up slowly like a sweet bedtime story and explodes with creative energy in every chorus. It's not only intelligently catchy, but at the same time superbly sophisticated and never pandering.

"Here Be Monsters" was an amazing debut album, full of atmospheric upbeat tunes like "Apple of My Eye," and only one definite misstep ("Shanghai"). But if "From Every Sphere" was a simply stripped-down but assured sophomore effort (with "The Birds Will Sing For Us" at its pinnacle), then "Strangers," which finally receives its state-side release today on Astralwerks, is a step forward for Harcourt. The album amazes at every turn and is nothing short of acoustical joy.

This is evident from the album opener, "The Storm is Coming," which begins with a spacey feedback sound that is quickly attacked by a well-placed drum roll. When the lyrics come, they are forceful in their tempo and move along at a clip. And then it happens: the piano-pounding Harcourt chorus. Everything's there and it's perfect, all the way to the slow wind-down, when Harcourt draws out the words, "I hope it turns your life upside-down."

The second track, "Born In The '70s," is a taste of something different. It runs like a frenetic race around the backyard or an old home movie flicking about at a slightly sped-up frame speed. Harcourt doesn't slow the tempo for the chorus, which sounds slightly rushed (you can hear him gasp for breath), until nearly the end. The song then almost comes to a full stop, except for a tinkering piano with a steady drum line growing behind it. If the song is an answer to The Police's "Born In The '50s," then its backup vocal line, "We don't really give a f*ck about you," seems to bond with Ryan Adams' ode to the era both young talents share ("1974").

The album then slips into easier fare, with the head-bobbingly good "This One's For You," and the album's title track which goes down like a syrupy Shirley Temple for the ears -- a sweet pink treat that leaves you bubbling and happy. The tempo of the album becomes a little less joyful after this, however. More thoughtful songs proliferate the middle of the album, like "Music Box," which exudes a strangely heart-wrenching nostalgia when Harcourt coos, "Something to remind you / of the ones you left behind you." This section features the albums only misstep, though -- "The Trapdoor," while not a bad song, seems a little too much like filler, without any of its own panache.

"Loneliness," though, contends for the standout spot on the album. Any song that starts out "in an empty cinema" has to be good. And Harcourt is actually able to use ethereal backup vocals to a positive effect, something not many artists can pull off. The song features the signature tempo punch three-quarters of the way through, and comes out a perfect piece of pop brilliance.

Luckily, the album wraps up with another outstanding song, "Black Dress," which has a strangely exuberant sadness to it as Harcourt finds the right words to heal a sorry situation. A guitar rambles and skips along with his voice, gently mingling with a tiny piano line. A horn joins in to this shoebox-sized musical ensemble, specifically making an excellent contribution to the song's exit.

The album finishes, appropriately, with the line "He will come back." "Strangers" is such a finely accomplished album that I can only hope Harcourt is talking about himself.